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Thursday, 25 October 2007

The Wizards of Twiddly...

Pier Head, Liverpool; just after sunrise. The glare of the light is rapidly spreading over the still misty, muddy water as the wind whips in from the Irish Sea. The Beatles once stood where you now stand, with a piece-of-string-strapped acoustic guitar between you; the new John and Paul. Caspar is there too, now studying at C.S. Mott College over in Prescott. We've accompanied him back on the cramped and dingy overnight coach after whichever vacation it was that had just come to an end, in 1984 - or was it 1985? We crane our necks at the Liver Building and squint up at the distant Liver birds.

Caspar is our guide on this magical mystery tour. In Mathew Street you have the record shop where Pete Burns used to work and the car park where the Cavern used to stand a few steps up from the new (and rather tacky) Cavern Walks. What was once Eric's (now - or rather, then - Brady's, if Wikipedia is to be believed) is opposite. You can peer up at the the photos of all those heads it's had the pleasure to know that run up the staircAse walls. The Grapes, Ye Crack, Penny Lane and even Knotty Ash you get to see them all and take that cliched ferry across the Mersey too. Then, at night, the club - I can't remember the name of it - where they filmed an early Frankie 'Relax' video and a couple of scenes from Letter to Brezhnev. You move on from there to the Casablanca; a cosy drinking room in the once-smart Georgian terrace opposite the Anglican Cathedral. There beneath the vast, looming Bogart and Bacall whose painted, parting clinch takes up most of a wall, you drink your Newcy browns and gobble down a bowl of chilli. It's been generously ladled from the huge vat of the stuff and is all this late night 'restaurant' ever serves. Who cares? It gives them a late license.

On one of our visits - I couldn't find a record of it to verify the date - we go to see a gig at (I think) the Liverpool University Academy. Caspar's mates, Andys Delamere and Frizzell, have a band called Perfect and they're the support act for the up and coming Woodentops. These same two Andys will go on to form the wonderfully named Wizards of Twiddly a few years later and between them build up an impressive portfolio of collaborations with some very well known artists; Kevin Ayers, The Coral and - this is *really* impressive - the late Vivian Stanshall. To give you some idea of the level they're on, they develop a sideline tribute band called The Muffin Men. The artist whose repertoire they're reviving? Frank Zappa.

I don't remember much about that evening except that there was a very large red and black banner draped behind the stage. It was most likely something to do with Militant Tendency. Militant had a strong presence on Liverpool Council and for most of 1984 and 1985, the time in which I'd make my visits to the city, there was a stand off between local and central government over the Tories attempts to curb the rates. In 1984, Liverpool threatened to ignore the proposed cap (in effect, a council spending cut) and continue to provide the services they'd been elected to by running at something like a £35 million deficit.

There's broad support initially for the council's programme of public works and house building and, with the government having somewhat bigger fish to fry in the form of the National Union of Minerworkers, a compromise is reached. However, this only defers the confrontation until the following year. Emboldened, perhaps, by the apparent success of their stand in '84, the council, led by former fireman Derek Hatton, once again refuses to comply with the Thatcher government's financial restraints. With the council workers poised to come out on strike and the Miners' dispute raging elsewhere, it appears to be a critical point in the decade. Factor in the romanticism of youth and it's a very heady time. With all the banners waving and the spirit of defiance in the air it felt as I imagine Barcelona must have done when Orwell joined the anarchist militia there during the Spanish Civil War.

But looking back, with time behind me and all the further cynicism that's accrued, there was something else you picked up on. It was there in the voices of the busdrivers and the Chinese lady who served us chips, taking our orders in her thoroughly assimilated scouse; something older and wiser with an air of 'seen-it-all'. This time would be no different, the quiet resignation of those sing-song lilts was telling you; and life would still go on.


The double decker pauses for an age outside a desolate parade. Boarded shops fester on the facade of a characterless single storey block of soviet starkness. Someone's aerosoled a line through the first word on the orange hoarding of the Labour Exchange. The one they've sprayed above it appears to be a better fit; at least it must feel that way, the hundredth or the thousandth time you trudge down to the Joke Centre to find there is no work.

Up ahead and to the right of the front of the bus where you sit, as you used to as a kid, pretending that you were the driver of the bus, you can see Anfield. "This is Anfield" it says at the end of the tunnel, on the sign above the players as they run out onto the pitch. It's meant to scare you; back then, most likely it did. The place certainly seemed to scare the Arsenal. They lose 2-1 on 11th February, 1984; 3-0 on the 12th February 1985; 2-0 on 17th August that same year. This is not Anfield, but even so you are scared. Because everything is broken down here and you can only hope that does not extend to the bus you're sitting on right now.


Life would still go on. And so it went. The council ballsed it up. They lost the support of their employees when they gave them the impression they were prepared to sack them without any guarantees that those staff would get their jobs back after this legal formality had been observed. Or maybe something else had started to sink in, taken the fight out of the city as it tottered on the brink. There's no doubt in my mind that Hatton favoured the grand gesture over the pragmatic. But the bus drivers still drive and the chip lady from the orient continues to batter away. Heseltine came up here, as local band (and Tory supporters, as it goes) The Icicle Works observed, and flowers started sprouting everywhere. Liverpool still beat Arsenal when they made the trip to Anfield, so what had really changed?


One of Caspar's friends is Caroline Aherne (or 'Titch' as she seems to be more widely known back then) who will go on to write The Royle Family. But you don't get to meet her on any of the occasions you come up here. Another friend is a guy called John Dunbavin (Eddie Izzard with Tom Selleck's moustache - no, strike that; he's Tom Selleck with Tom Selleck's moustache...) whose room is a little down the corridor in Caspar's hall of residence. He has a tube of 'sun-in'. It reacts to the sun when you put it on your hair and gives you 'natural' highlights. You try some, hoping to emulate the honeyed tones of his smooth 1980's quiff.

You sit there, in the Prince Albert pub on Lark (or was it Linnet?) Lane where one night Paul handed a Shimmy Shimmy demo tape to Ian McCulloch of Echo & the Bunnymen. He did the same at Guildford Civic Hall, handing a copy of the same tape to the soundman when we went to see the Smiths on 28th February, 1985. We still haven't heard back from either of them. He's huge is Mac; a rugby number eight under that baggy jumper and bulky miserablist's overcoat. His hair is so majestically dishevelled. No one has any money. You're each despondently nursing your last pint when Caspar tries to sip the last few mouthfuls of his beer without using either of his hands. The glass lifts slowly and just as the beer is about to trickle down towards his throat, the pint pot snaps and an anarchy of glass and Guinness is rained upon the table. We take one look at Caspar, a pathetic beak of glass protruding from his mouth, and collapse hysterically. Spirits bouyed by this insanity, Dunbavin seeks a cash point and, wedged up once more, we grab a cab to Casablanca to have ourselves a good time, with no money, at someone else's credit card's expense.


I'm looking through the box of papers, notebooks and assorted scraps I brought back from the old family home, trying to find a scrap from Liverpool that might help me out with places, names or dates. There's nothing from that period that I can see, but I do find this - no doubt intended to be a lyric but one that reads more like a poem - a brief recollection of that time penned a couple of years later. I'd called it 'Satori [sic] in Liverpool':

A salty misty port at 6 in the morning,
Strong arms release the ferry as the day is dawning.
The smell of fish and chips.
Rings are only made for pawning.

A blue knapsack on my shoulder,
Caspar showing me around.
Sprawled on the floor of the flat
Alert to every sound.

Even the taxi drivers have a sense of humour.
The world is a sweet shop
And I am the consumer.
Toxteth looks like 'Citizen Kane';
Limping, limping, limping along with its tumour.

I've included it here merely because it was written closer to the time I'm writing about now than I am to it today. I certainly don't make any literary claims for it. Indeed, there's a lot that I don't like about it; "the smell of fish and chips" isn't ringing any bells, neither is the bit about Toxteth and Citizen Kane. I would immediately excise that bullshitty and only-in-there-for-the-rhyme tumour too, were this not a purely documentary exercise. In fact, the whole thing has the feel of all of the poetry I write - most of it in jest whenever things get too pretentious on the Guardian Unlimited and I send in something in blank verse and knocked up on the spot that usually ends with the in-joke line "as if culled from Utopia" that Caspar and I always laugh about. It come from a poem I wrote about seal culling in much the same jocular spirit during a third year English class.

But it's not all hateful. The blue knapsack I quite like - if only as an aide memoir that means I can see the very one that I was carrying when it would otherwise have stayed forgotten. It could even be the Tory's touristy blue one, perhaps? And I trust the "salty misty port" better than I do the paragraph that starts this section at Pier Head. Maybe in a poet's hands, that sweet shop/consumer thing might have had some proper legs rather than 'limping, limping, limping' Toxteth-like as it does. Who knows? That same poet might even have been able to make the taxi driver joke work too.

As I'm rooting through the pile that washed this fragment up, I come across an airmail letter sent from Israel. It's from Paul; the owner of that string-strapped acoustic guitar we heard the distant strum of back at Pier Head as the dawn broke way back when. It dates back to his stint on a Kibbutz in the late 1980s. Deep, wise and unusually unguarded, it's another of those unexpected intrusions from the past that leave you feeling rather strange:

Fiction is a release for the imagination. A release for the imagination is probably as crucial to human beings as food and sex. No, really. Kurt Vonnegut has a nice theory about fiction - here it is. Novels organise the world into leading and minor parts, plots and storys [sic], important parts and unimportant parts, a beginning a middle and an end. Ponder for a minute how close this is to the way people see themselves and wether [sic] they consider themselves leading or minor characters ...

... I couldn't agree more, Paul. Why else do you think I'm giving fiction such a wide berth? He goes on:

War, starvation and sex are meaningless until you have experienced them. Absolutely meaningless.

The desert looks like a bald man. It is the world without any face paint or hairstyle...

Music has been floating about in the air for all time. Some bright spark organised it into tones and intervals and what not. But a guitar is only to music what a clock is to time.

A musician puts something in the air that makes you feel good.

Hope you liked it.

I did Paul, very much. We always did share that view of music; perhaps even now we still do? That is was more about the magic it conveyed; the stuff of wizards yes, but all those twiddly bits, we felt, were not always necessary. For a while there was music in the air that made us both feel good.

I peer back across another desert, bleaker, vaster even than the Middle Eastern one you gave a bald man's pate, and that touched something deep in your nomad's heart. We've long since let it be and, like that other Paul and John, are now probably also "worlds apart". Perhaps that's why I can't help reading that airmailed letter from the desert as some kind of goodbye.


Another bald man, another desert. The Tottenham board tell Martin Jol he's sacked then send him out to watch his team struggle for the final time. No wizard, he never quite got the hang of all those twiddly football bits. A wounded animal finally exhasted by the inhospitable terrain, he comes to rest and barely twitches as those ninety vulture minutes pick him right down to the carcass.

L.U.V. on y'all,


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  1. 'assimilated scouse', 'soviet starkness'....Robert in top form.

  2. I saw The Muffin Men a few years back doing an assortment of Beefheart and Zappa tunes at The Borderline. Jimmy Carl Black joined them on stage for a fantastic rendition of "Lonesome Cowboy Burt". I've got one of their LPs - Go Ape - I think it's called. Can't remember if it was any good, but the live Muffins are worth it.

  3. Thanks Dickster - she went like the clappers, btw...

    Vanski Boy - I haven't got 'round to seeing the Zappa tribute set, but I'm sure they're excellent. I'll be trying to track down their work with Mr. Stanshall Fo' sho (as we say in the Home Counties...)

    Bobster - p.s. good luck tonight....

  4. I love the 'pathetic beak of glass' image - a bit like a kid when you make the glass of coca cola stick to your chin with suction and try and drink it - and of course it rarely works. Lovely, deep writing Bob. xx